Students learn to shear, class wool at NDSU sponsored school

Class participants look over a clipper before watching the shearing demonstration on Nov. 20, 2016.

While her official start date isn’t for a few more days, Lisa Surber is already getting her feet wet – and her fingers greasy – as she teaches sheep enthusiasts how to class wool.

Surber was one of several instructors at a wool classing school that was held in conjunction with a sheep shearing school in Hettinger, North Dakota, Nove. 19-21. She just accepted a position with the American Sheep Institute as a consultant for raw wool services, and will officially begin at the beginning of December.

Surber taught 15 students from Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Canada and Montana, how to class wool. “When they walk away from this school, they will be level 1 classers,” said Surber of her students. Herself a level 4 classer – the highest ranking possible – Surber said the students will be immediately certified to grade thieir own wool.

After classing about 10,000 pounds of wool, a classer moves to into the level 2 tier, and after traveling and classing even more, level 3 can be achieved. As a level 4 classer, Surber has classed thousands of pounds of wool and is certified to teach. The certification is recognized within the industry and overseen by the American Sheep Industry, a national organization.

A wool classer’s job is to inspect the fleece immediately after shearing to determine its quality.

Grade, length and strength are the criteria the classers are looking at, and considering when they sort fleeces. Any sheep operation could benefit from a good classer, Surber said, because even a uniform set of sheep that are of the same genetic makeup could vary. “There will be variations – there might be some that were sick, some that have more vegetable matter in the wool.”

The classer should sort the fleeces during the shearing process into piles or bags of similar fleeces. When fleeces of different qualities are bagged together, the bag is valued on the lowest quality fleece in the bag, so the rancher is giving up some potential income.

“Classing is supposed to increase the value of the wool. You are putting more into it, so the hope is that you get more out of it,” Surber explained.

A good classer will be able to describe a fleece or set of fleeces with details about the grade, length, style, color and more, she said.

Ron Cole, a wool education consultant also helped teach the classing school.

While the classers were classing, up-and-coming shearers were learning to shear.

Shearing instructor Wade Kopren, along with Mike Hagens, Alex Moser and NDSU’s Travis Hoffman taught a group of 19 individuals the ins and outs of efficently removing a fleece from a sheep.

From Oregon, Kansas, South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, Iowa and Wyoming, 19 individuals took part in the shearing school.

Using a rig that he paid for with a “Let’s Grow” grant from the American Sheep Industry, Kopren said he and the other teachers could easily demonstrate, teach and help students.

The portable set-up includes five shearing stations and a trailer. Kopren said the quality and quantity of sheep available for teaching, along with the staff and facility, make this school perhaps the best one he participates in. He’s helped put on clinics in Wyoming, Colorado, North and South Dakota and Texas.

Director of the NDSU sheep research center, Chris Schauer said this school was their biggest one in nine consecutive years of hosting them. With tighter margins in livestock production, sheep producers are looking to get more out of each animal, so classing wool is becoming more appealing.

“The next generation is realizing that there were a lot of things that Dad knew but nobody else did. You are seeing these ranches send mom or the son to the classes so that it’s not just ‘Dad’ who knows about certain aspects of the operation,” said Schauer.

Many of the shearing and classing students are ranchers who will mostly use their new found knowledge on the home place, he said. But Kopren said one or two of his shearing students usually wind up on a shearing crew each year.

While he’s noticed that some operations in the southern U.S. are trending out of wool breeds and into haired sheep or goats, producers in the northern regions are “staying strong with wool breeds,” said Schauer.

Schauer said there will be a tenth annual shearing and classing school in 2017 the weekend before Thanksgiving.